Stratocaster mods – Lessons learnedWerner Carstens
A few years ago I bought a brand new Mexican Fender Stratocaster for a very good price. To be precise, it was a 60’s Classic Series strat in sunburst with a rosewood fretboard with a 7.25 inch radius and 3 single coils. It felt great in the store but once the honeymoon period was over I had to be honest that I just did not feel it anymore. Something was amiss and after a while I stopped playing it. Up until that point I have never owned a Stratocaster with vintage specifications so I rationalised it as me not being able to adapt to its idiosyncrasies. With an ever growing need to have more vintage tones in my arsenal I decided to perform a few Stratocaster mods to see if I could mold it more to my liking. (Spoiler alert: This started a black hole that has since not stopped and I will never recommend this level of customisation to anyone that wants to sell the guitar at some point).
Here is the list of things that I wanted to change:
- The 7.25 inch fret-board radius with the stock wiry frets did not work for me. I was used to Gibson’s 12 inch radius or Fenders with 9.25 inches with bigger frets.
- The finish on the back of the neck was way too sticky, especially on a hot sweaty day.
- The string tension was uncomfortably high for my taste. At standard tuning with 10 – 46 gauge strings the tension was comparable with my other guitars strung with 11 – 48 gauge strings (similar scale length of 25.5 inches). I wanted to see if I could get a looser feel without dropping to 9 – 42 gauge sets.
- The height adjustment screws on the saddles dug into my hand when I muted the strings. Not pleasurable and I stripped the thread of one screw in the bass E saddle within a month after purchase. (Note to self: Do not change the saddle height while the string is tuned to standard pitch.)
- The pickups sounded too thin and the hum under certain stage conditions was a bit too much for me. I wanted it less scooped with a bit more growl in the low end.
- The bridge position was too spiky. I needed a tone control on the bridge pickup to tame it a bit.
Before I started I realised that whatever I do might be irreversible so I have to accept the fact that I will never be able to sell it for a decent amount. Once I convinced myself to do it anyway the “Stratocaster mods fun” started.
I am not a luthier and I don’t have the tools to change neck radii. So I looked around on Gumtree and found a Fender licensed Mighty Mite replacement neck with the specifications I wanted – maple with a rosewood fret-board and 9.5 inch radius. After replacing the neck and adjusting saddle height to fit the new neck dimensions I plugged it in hoping for a vast improvement in overall feel. And here I learned lesson 1: A vast amount of your guitar’s tone comes from the neck. (Not sure how much exactly in scientific terms. Maybe someone can work it out?). The guitar felt better, but the initial attack on the note and top-end sparkle was gone. It simply was not my strat anymore. It felt like I went backwards and eventually the old neck came back on. Immediately the attack and sparkle was back. (I still cannot figure this out as the Mighty Mite neck is awesome in all respect – I still have it).
This left me with a predicament. Shall I procure a proper Fender neck or take it to a luthier to flatten the radius? I opted for the latter and off it went to Foster Guitar Works. As Foster had to remove all the frets to flatten the radius I asked him to fit Fender US standard sized frets and replace the stock nut with a bone one.
A few Rand later (not a cheap mod) I got the guitar back. The workmanship was faultless (as is my experience with all Foster’s work) but the fret-board felt dry and harsh under my fingers. It used to have a slicker and softer feel (hard to explain really) and the colour changed slightly. Lesson 2: Some manufacturers spray the final fret-board coating after the frets were installed. This fills up all the little gaps between the frets and fingerboard wood and gives the whole board a slicker feel under your fingers. It also made the appearance slightly darker in this case. I did not want to take it back again to have it sprayed so I decided to learn to live with it – at least the tone was still as I remembered.
Next I took sandpaper and sanded down the finish on the back of the neck to bare wood – from just below the head-stock to where the neck meets the body. I started with a rough grit paper and gradually changed to finer grits until it was satin smooth. It really felt great under my hand and still do. It is a great mod that I will do again if I do not want to sell the guitar!!
Electronics and pickups
A quick search on the internet uncovered a few great resources explaining how to rewire the 2nd tone control to your bridge pickup. Premier Guitar has a great article here. After a quick visit to the hardware store I returned with a soldering iron and solder. Now I am not the most gifted when it comes to electronics but this was so easy that I had the mod done and the guitar strung up within 15 minutes. The mod works great and I have since changed all my strats to function like this.
The first pickup set I tried in the strat was a Kinman Woodstock Plus set. They underwhelmed me initially but it was noiseless so I stuck with it. After reading a few articles on pickup height I started playing around with it and the results were an absolute revelation. Lesson 3: Pickup height makes a huge difference, especially with single coils. The attack and note depth changes remarkably with changes in height i.e. distance from the strings. I set the height for each pickup where it sounded best to me. The bridge pickup especially was an absolute monster and the set stayed in the guitar for years.
I eventually replaced the Kinman’s with a Fender Custom Shop 69 set. My amp of choice nowadays (Swart AST MK2) is very warm and mid rich and it tames the inherent spikiness of the vintage-voiced pickups. I am very grateful for the bridge tone pot mod however.
Saddles and string tension
I replaced the stock pressed steel saddles with Graphtec String Savers. I could not discern any change in tone and the height adjustment screws were much softer on my hands. Sorted.
After all these changes I hoped to have addressed the string tension issue. Lesson 4: The inherent string tension on a guitar is what it is. Accept it and work with it.
Apart from all of the above I tried a few other things to see if I could lessen the tension. I played around with the amount of strings on the trem block – no impact. I usually set my floating bridges to be flushed with the body. I first changed it to float a bit and then blocked it off completely with a wood block. Nothing made a difference. My other strat has a looser feel at standard tuning with 11 – 48 gauge strings than this strat has with 10 – 46 gauge strings. What causes this is beyond me and hopefully a luthier can explain this to me some day. I eventually settled for a 11 – 48 gauge string set tuned to Eb. In one of my regular gigging bands we tune down to Eb for live gigs and since my other strat does not adapt well to down-tuning it makes sense to keep this one in Eb tuning.
So what is next after all my Stratocaster mods? Well now I struggle with a big volume discrepancy between the high E and unwound G string. The Custom Shop 69 set has staggered pole pieces that were developed initially for 7.25 inch radius fret boards and a wound G-string. I use an unwound G-string with a 12 inch fretboard. Sigh. Will the Stratocaster mods ever end?
One of the most ironic things about my journey is that the latest rendition of the Classic Series 60’s Stratocaster comes stock with a 12-inch radius fret-board, 69 single coil pickups and medium jumbo frets. Really?
Werner is a true weekend warrior. Corporate job during the week and rock star (well, at least in his eyes) and recording guitarist on weekends. With more than 20 years of gigs behind his belt in both cover and original bands, and numerous recordings that he either owned or blew spectacularly, he has a few pearls of wisdom to share. Or is it simply sharing the fact that he is still learning every day how to channel his love for all things guitar…